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Development 127, 1563-1572 (2000)
Printed in Great Britain © The Company of Biologists Limited 2000
Early mouse endoderm is patterned by soluble factors from adjacent germ
James M. Wells* and Douglas A. Melton
Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, 7 Divinity Avenue, Harvard University,
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138, USA
*Author for correspondence (e-mail: [email protected])
Accepted 31 January; published on WWW 21 March 2000
Endoderm that forms the respiratory and digestive tracts
is a sheet of approximately 500-1000 cells around the distal
cup of an E7.5 mouse embryo. Within 2 days, endoderm
folds into a primitive gut tube from which numerous organs
will bud. To characterize the signals involved in the
developmental specification of this early endoderm, we
have employed an in vitro assay using germ layer explants
and show that adjacent germ layers provide soluble,
temporally specific signals that induce organ-specific gene
expression in endoderm. Furthermore, we show that FGF4
expressed in primitive streak-mesoderm can induce the
differentiation of endoderm in a concentration-dependent
manner. We conclude that the differentiation of
gastrulation-stage endoderm is directed by adjacent
mesoderm and ectoderm, one of the earliest reported
patterning events in formation of the vertebrate gut tube.
acid binding protein gene (IFABP) and Cdx2 in posterior
endoderm (Beck et al., 1995; Bouwmeester et al., 1996; Rhinn
et al., 1998; Thomas and Beddington, 1996). By the end of
gastrulation (E7.5), overlapping domains of gene expression
suggest that endoderm is subdivided into A-P regions (Fig. 1)
and this is supported by fate-mapping studies (Lawson et al.,
1991). For example, anterior endoderm cells of the late
gastrula-stage embryo (E7.5) (Fig. 1, region I) end up in the
ventral foregut of the early somite-stage embryo (E8.5),
subsequently making the liver, lungs and stomach. Endoderm
in regions II and III gives rise to dorsal foregut and midgut,
eventually becoming the esophagus, stomach, dorsal pancreas
and duodenum. The midgut and hindgut endoderm of the
somite-stage embryo, which form small and large intestine,
respectively, are derived from posterior region III and region
It is not known how the early A-P patterns of gene
expression are established, or how the fates of cells in different
regions are specified to form a patterned tube. One possibility
is that endoderm obtains its regional identity via an
autonomous program, without regard to adjacent germ layers.
For example, positional information within the endoderm
could be specified by the time at which cells migrate through
the primitive streak. Alternatively, other germ layers could
provide positional identity by ‘stamping’ the endoderm. Both
mesodermal and ectodermal germ layers express signaling
molecules that could confer positional identity to endoderm
(Beddington and Smith, 1993; Burdsal et al., 1998; Conlon
et al., 1994; Niswander and Martin, 1992; Yamaguchi and
Rossant, 1995). Indeed there is precedent for this kind of
Endoderm organ development is an area of intense study, but
little is known about how endoderm is initially formed and
regionally specified in higher vertebrates. For example, it is
unclear what signals and responding genes direct totipotent cells
of the early mouse embryo to form a sheet of endoderm by the
end of gastrulation (E6-7.5). It is also unknown how endoderm
cells within the sheet obtain positional identity and form a
primitive gut tube (E7.5-9). As the gut tube is subsequently
transformed into a thick columnar epithelium, new gene
expression marks territories for the esophagus, lungs, thyroid,
thymus, stomach, pancreas, liver and intestines (Wells and
Melton, 1999). While these and subsequent events in endoderm
organogenesis are well described, the initial formation and early
specification of the endoderm is poorly understood.
During gastrulation, endoderm, mesoderm and ectoderm all
derive from the totipotent cells of the epiblast (E6-7.5).
Endodermal cells migrate out of the primitive streak (PS) to
form a cup on the outside of the embryo. In mammals, the
genes directing endoderm formation are not yet identified, but
several frog transcription factors (mixer, and sox 17α and β)
can dictate the endodermal cell fate in a cell-autonomous
fashion (Henry and Melton, 1998; Hudson et al., 1997).
Generation of endoderm seems to be coupled with its initial
anterior-posterior specification in that the first endoderm to
migrate out of the PS becomes anterior endoderm. The first
molecular evidence of endodermal anterior-posterior (A-P)
specification is suggested by the expression of cerberus-like,
Otx1 and Hesx1 in anterior endoderm and the intestinal fatty
Key words: Gut organogenesis, Gastrulation, Mesoderm/ectoderm,
1564 J. M. Wells and D. A. Melton
stamping in the context of neural specification where anterior
visceral endoderm lacking the gene for the TGFβ-like growth
factor nodal is unable to pattern anterior ectoderm (Varlet et
al., 1997). In addition, it was shown in vitro that anterior
mesendoderm induces expression of neural markers in adjacent
ectoderm (Ang et al., 1994; Ang and Rossant, 1993).
After gastrulation, during somite and neural tube formation,
the endoderm rolls up into a primitive gut tube. Studies have
begun to uncover mechanisms by which regions of this tube
are determined to form specific organs. The ventral foregut
(Fig. 1, region I) of the early somite-stage embryo (E8.5)
expresses the liver marker albumin in response to signals from
adjacent cardiac mesoderm (Gualdi et al., 1996). Signals from
cardiac mesoderm are, in part, mediated by FGFs, which can
induce ventral foregut endoderm to express albumin (Jung et
al., 1999). Another study focusing on pancreatic development
in chicks demonstrated that the dorsal foregut/midgut
endoderm (regions II and III, approx. 10-somite stage) receives
permissive signals from the adjacent notochord resulting in
expression of pancreatic genes such as Pdx1 (Hebrok et al.,
1998; Kim et al., 1997). The notochord factors, which can be
mimicked by FGF2 and activin βB, act to repress endodermal
expression of sonic hedgehog (Shh) and thereby allow for
pancreatic gene expression.
Some of the genes that regulate gut organogenesis in
response to inductive signals have been identified. These
include transcription factors, such as Pdx1 and NeuroD that
have been genetically ablated in mice, producing defects in
formation of the pancreas, caudal stomach and duodenum.
Other transcription factors necessary for proper gut
development include Pax 4, 6, 8 and 9, Nkx 2.2 and Isl-1
(Ahlgren et al., 1997; Jonsson et al., 1994; Krapp et al., 1998;
Mansouri et al., 1998; Peters et al., 1998; Sosa-Pineda et al.,
1997; St-Onge et al., 1997; Sussel et al., 1998). How these
transcription factors interact to generate specific cell types is
as yet unclear, although some target genes of Pdx1, including
insulin and somatostatin (Goudet et al., 1999), have been
In the studies mentioned above, particularly those on
pancreatic development, the intercellular signals and
transcription factors act in a permissive way, revealing a
predisposition or pattern in the endoderm that was presumably
established by the start of gut tube formation. In this report, we
address the origins of this early endoderm pattern using an in
vitro assay that allows us to test tissues that specify endodermal
fates. The results point to adjacent germ layers as the source
of soluble signals that confer A-P pattern to endoderm. These
signals are temporally specific, and appear to function in an
instructive rather than permissive manner. Moreover, the
growth factor FGF4 is expressed by the primitive streak and
induces posterior endoderm markers in a concentrationdependent manner, suggesting that FGF4 may be a posterior
morphogen for endoderm. Taken together, our findings suggest
that instructive signals from the mesoderm and ectoderm act to
regionally specify the late gastrulation-stage endoderm.
Mouse strains
E7.5-7.75 mouse embryos were obtained from outbred ICR mice
(Taconic, NY, USA) or ROSA26 mice (Jackson Laboratory, ME,
USA) and staged according to established protocols (Downs and
Davies, 1993). Pdx1lacZ/+ embryos were obtained from
ICR×Pdx1lacZ/+ mice (Pdx1lacZ/+ mice were obtained from M. Gannon
and C. Wright, Vanderbilt University, TN, USA), where 50% of the
embryos carry a targeted Pdx1 allele.
Embryo dissections and explant culture
Endoderm isolation
Embryos were isolated and staged according to closure of the amnion
and presence of an allantoic bud. Endoderm was manually isolated
from early allantoic bud-stage embryos (E7.5-7.75), when endoderm
is easily removed with only minimal mesoderm contamination.
Embryos were immobilized by gently holding the extraembryonic
region with a mouth pipette while a series of small tears were made
around the endoderm at the embryonic/extraembryonic junction with
polished tungsten needles. The endoderm was peeled away from the
underlying mesoderm and ectoderm, and cut away from the node. This
method was developed because endoderm isolated by proteolytic
methods did not survive well in culture. Anterior and posterior
endoderm was isolated from E7.5 embryos by first making a cut along
the embryo anterior to the node or posterior to the node, then
removing (as above) the respective region of endoderm. We
specifically isolated endoderm on either side of the node to avoid
contamination of endoderm with adherent node cells. Similarly,
mesoderm/ectoderm lacking the node was isolated to avoid
contamination with node endoderm.
Mesoderm/primitive streak, and ectoderm isolation
Embryonic regions were separated from extraembryonic regions with
a tungsten needle and transferred to Dulbecco’s PBS containing
0.25% pancreatin, 0.5% trypsin and incubated at 4°C for 10 minutes
(Hogan et al., 1994). Embryos were transferred to DMEM + 10%
serum and gently blown through a mouth pipette to detach the
endoderm, which was subsequently removed. The mesoderm was
pulled away from the ectoderm, then cut from the primitive streak.
The primitive streak and node regions were then separated from the
anterior ectoderm.
Chick notochord isolation
Eggs (Preston, CT, USA) were incubated at 38°C and staged
according to Hamburger and Hamilton (1951). For notochord
isolation, tungsten needles were used to remove endoderm from the
notochord of stage-11− (12 somites) embryos extending from the
anterior intestinal portal (AIP) to the caudal limit of the somites.
The notochord was cut at the level of the AIP and forceps were used
to peel away the notochord along the length of the ventral neural tube.
Endoderm was recombined with the various tissues and grown in
collagen-matrix gel as previously described (Dickinson et al., 1995).
Explants embedded in collagen were covered with 0.6 ml of DMEM
+ 15% FBS (Life Technologies, NY, USA) and cultured for 48 hours.
Survival and health of explants were assessed by several criteria.
Collagen explant morphology
Endoderm cultured alone tends to form either hollow cysts, or balls
of endoderm. Unhealthy or dying endoderm fragments and pulls away
from the collagen. Healthy endoderm explants grow in size during
Cell morphology
Healthy endoderm cells are refractile to light, where as dead cells
appear dark under the microscope. Also, Hematoxylin and Eosin
(H&E) staining of healthy endoderm explants (Fig. 6) show mitotic
E7.5 endoderm induction by adjacent germ layers 1565
Gene expression
Only endoderm that appeared morphologically healthy had detectable
expression of abundant genes such as β-tubulin and HNF3β.
In the transfilter assays, the mesoderm/ectoderm was placed on a
collagen drop, the 0.4 mm Biopore membrane (Millipore, MA, USA)
was put over the tissue, another collagen drop was placed over the
membrane, and the endoderm was positioned in the collagen adjacent
to the mesoderm/ectoderm. After 2 days of culture, the endoderm and
mesoderm/ectoderm were separated for subsequent analysis by RTPCR.
Endoderm assays with growth factors
Recombinant human aFGF, FGF2, FGF4, FGF5, TGFα, TGFβ1,
TGFβ2, EGF, IGFI, IGFII, HGF and murine FGF8b were from R&D
Systems Inc. (Minneapolis, MN, USA), and murine Activin A was
obtained as described (Sokol and Melton, 1991). The starting
concentration of growth factors were as recommended by the
manufacturer, and were increased up to 100-fold above this
RNA preparation and reverse transcription polymerase
chain reactions (RT-PCR)
RT-PCR was performed on total RNA as described previously (Wilson
and Melton, 1994). Primer pairs were used for PCR with the following
conditions: 1 cycle of 94°C for 3 minutes; then 39 cycles of 94°C for
1 minute, 60°C for 1.5 minutes, 72°C for 1 minute; and finally 1 cycle
of 72°C for 5 minutes. Primer sequences used are listed forward then
reverse, 5′ to 3′. The PCR reaction was analyzed by electrophoresis
in a 1.5% agarose gel and photographed after ethidium bromide
staining. β-tubulin primers (Gittes and Rutter, 1992), 5′-TGGCCAGATCTTCAGACCAG-3′ and 5′-GTAAGTTCAGGCACAGTGAG3′, amplify a product of 627 bp. Somatostatin (SS) primers (Gittes
and Rutter, 1992), 5′-CCGTCAGTTTCTGCAGAAGT-3′ and 5′CAGGGTCAAGTTGAGCATCG-3′, amplify a product of 360 bp.
NeuroD primers (Naya et al., 1997), 5′-CCTCTAATCGTGAAAGATGGC-3′ and 5′-CCTCGGACTTTCTTGCCTGAG-3′, amplify
a product of 499 bp. Insulin primers (Gittes and Rutter, 1992), 5′CAGCCCTTAGTGACCAGCTA-3′ and 5′-ATGCTGGTGCAGCACTGATC-3′, amplify a product of 346 bp. Hesx1 primers (Thomas
and Beddington, 1996), 5′-CGACCCAGAAGAGAATGTCTC-3′ and
5′-AAAGAGCGTGTTTCGGAGGCTG-3′, amplify a product of 309
bp. Fgf4 primers (Hebert et al., 1990), 5′-TACTGCAACGTGGGCATCGGA-3′ and 5′-GTGGGTTACCTTCATGGTAGG-3′,
amplify a product of 344 bp. HNF3α primers (Ang and Rossant,
1994), 5′-TCTCACCCGGCTCACGGCC-3′ and 5′-CTAGGAAGTATTTAGCACGG-3′, amplify a product of 305 bp. NCAM primers
(Moos et al., 1988), 5′-ACAAGGAGGACACTCAGG-3′ and 5′GCTACTGCAGGATTGAGAG-3′, which amplify a product of 282
bp. IFABP primers (Green et al., 1992), 5′-GGAAAGGAGCTGATTGCTGTCC-3′ and 5′-CTTTGACAAGGCTGGAGACCAG3′, amplify a product of 225 bp. Pdx1 primers used for (Ohlsson
et al., 1993), 5′-CCAAAACCGTCGCATGAAGTG-3′ and 5′TCTGGGTCCCAGACCCG-3′, amplify a product of 305 bp.
LacZ staining and histology analysis
Beta-galactosidase activity was detected in fixed whole tissue using
the Histomark X-gal substrate system (Kireguard and Perry
Laboratories, MD, USA). For H&E staining, 6 µm paraffin sections
were dewaxed in xylene, rehydrated in PBS, and stained with H&E.
Endodermal gene expression during gut tube
formation in vivo
Fig. 1 shows gene expression data from RT-PCR of dissected
endoderm and in situ hybridization during gut tube formation
(E7.5-9.5). Fate-mapping experiments suggest that endoderm
cells have A-P identity by the end of gastrulation (E7.5)
(Lawson et al., 1986) and gene expression analyses of
microdissected anterior and posterior E7.5 endoderm verifies
that genes are regionally expressed along the A-P axis (Fig.
1A). For example, Hesx1, cardiac beta actin and cerberus-like
(data not shown) are expressed in anterior endoderm (regions
I, II; region III was avoided because of the tight association of
endoderm with the node in this region) whereas the intestinal
fatty acid binding protein gene (IFABP) is in posterior
endoderm (posterior region III, and IV). These data are
consistent with in situ analysis of cerberus-like and Hesx-1
(Biben et al., 1998; Thomas and Beddington, 1996), which
showed these genes expressed in an anterior to posterior
gradient in E7.5 endoderm.
As the endoderm sheet folds to form a gut tube and cells
condense into an epithelium (Fig. 1A,B, E8.5), the de novo
expression of several genes including Pdx-1, NeuroD and
somatostatin (SS) is observed (Gittes and Rutter, 1992; Jonsson
et al., 1994; Naya et al., 1997). RT-PCR analysis of dissected
gut tube regions shows that initial expression of Pdx1 occurs
as early as the 3-somite stage, where as NeuroD and SS
expression initiate slightly later (by 5 somites). By E9.5, these
markers are expressed in endoderm, which gives rise to
stomach, pancreas and duodenum (Fig. 1A,B; regions I and
III). In situ expression of Pdx1 in E9.5 embryos containing a
lac Z reporter integrated into a Pdx1 allele verifies that Pdx1
expression (in blue) is restricted to pancreatic regions I and III
(Fig. 1A, E9.5). NeuroD and SS are also expressed in regions
I and III; however, SS expression extends to the posterior gut
tube that will give rise to the small intestine (anterior region
IV) (Gittes and Rutter, 1992). IFABP expression persists
throughout these stages and marks the posterior gut. Wholemount in situ hybridization of E9.5 embryos shows that IFABP
is strongly expressed in the hindgut (region IV, data not
shown). Insulin expression is first detected by RT-PCR at E9.5
in region III; however, protein is not detectable in the
pancreatic bud until E10-11 (data not shown).
These data verify that Pdx1, NeuroD, SS and insulin become
expressed in endoderm during gut tube formation. Since these
genes mark different regions of the endoderm, we can use their
expression to test for signals that regulate the regional and
temporal specification of endoderm.
E7.5 endoderm requires signals from adjacent germ
layers to differentiate
Separation and recombination of germ layers has been used to
study the role of anterior mesendoderm in early anterior neural
patterning (Ang and Rossant, 1993). We have adapted this
technique to identify signals that induce gene expression in
endoderm. Endoderm mechanically isolated from E7.5-7.75
embryos (see Materials and Methods) is free of lateral
mesoderm and ectoderm, as measured by fgf4 and Ncam
expression, respectively, and has marginally detectable axial
mesoderm (Tbra, data not shown) (Fig. 2A). Endoderm
cultured for 2 days in DMEM + 15% FBS survives in culture
(as assayed morphologically and by gene expression, see
Materials and Methods), and continues to express the early
endoderm marker IFABP (Fig. 3B). However, Pdx1, SS and
NeuroD are not expressed, suggesting that E7.5 endoderm
1566 J. M. Wells and D. A. Melton
Fig. 1. Endodermal gene expression during gut tube formation in vivo. (A) Gene expression during morphogenesis of the gut tube.
Endoderm regions I-IV, defined by fate-mapping studies (Lawson et al., 1986), were microdissected from each stage and gene expression
was analyzed by RT-PCR (4-5 embryos pooled). In the late gastrulation embryo (E7.5), the line separates the embryo proper (bottom) from
the extraembryonic tissues (top). The embryonic endoderm is a sheet of cells surrounding the embryo proper. At E8.5, early somite stage,
gut tube formation begins at the anterior foregut (regions I and II) and posterior hindgut (region IV) (endoderm outlined by dotted yellow
line). Whole-mount in situ hybridization with albumin antisense RNA shows expression in the ventral foregut endoderm that is adjacent to
the heart tube (signal in upper foregut is from trapped probe when compared to embryos probed with sense RNA). By E9.5, turning of the
embryo closes up the midgut (E8.5 region III) and forms the gut tube (outlined in yellow). Pdx-1 (LacZ) expression in the E9.5 embryo
defines the dorsal and ventral pancreas and the duodenum (domains I and III). (+/−) indicates weak gene expression, and (–) indicates no
gene expression. (B) Endoderm gene activation between E7.5 and E9.5. Endoderm/gut tubes were isolated from the indicated stage
embryos and gene expression analyzed by RNA extraction and RT-PCR. No signal was detected in control samples (not treated with
reverse transcriptase; −RT). β-tubulin was amplified separately for 30 cycles (within the linear range) as a control for overall level of
reverse transcription.
Fig. 2. E7.5 endoderm requires
signals from adjacent germ layers to
differentiate. (A) Endoderm was
mechanically separated from the
underlying mesoderm and ectoderm
at the position indicated by the
arrows (left) and gene expression was
assayed by RT-PCR. Isolated
endoderm (right) expresses IFABP,
but not the mesodermal marker fgf4
or the ectodermal marker Ncam
(bottom). (B) Isolated endoderm was
cultured alone or in contact with
mesoderm/ectoderm (mec) in
collagen matrix for 2 days (top).
Endoderm expressing betagalactosidase (rosa 26 endoderm)
spreads out along the
mesoderm/ectoderm after 2 days of
coculture (middle). Unlike endoderm
cultured alone, endoderm cultured in
contact with mesoderm/ectoderm
expresses Pdx1, NeuroD and
somatostatin (SS) (bottom). No
signal was detected in control
samples of RNA from samples not
treated with reverse transcriptase
(−RT). These experiments were done
with three separate recombinants, and
repeated three times.
E7.5 endoderm induction by adjacent germ layers 1567
requires additional instructions to express these genes. HNFα
is expressed in several germ layers, and β-tubulin is ubiquitous.
We assayed mesoderm and ectoderm for their ability to
induce gene expression in endoderm. Endoderm cocultured
with mesoderm/ectoderm spreads out over these germ layers
after 2 days of culture (Fig. 2B), as demonstrated using lac Zexpressing endoderm isolated from rosa26 mice (Zambrowicz
et al., 1997). Furthermore, the endoderm now expresses Pdx1,
SS and Neuro D, suggesting that endoderm has received
inductive signals for these genes (Fig. 2B). Whole-mount in
situ analysis of recombinants using endoderm from Pdx1lacZ/+
animals (one Pdx1 allele carries a lacZ reporter gene) verified
Pdx1 expression in endoderm. As in the E8.5 embryo, Pdx1
expresses in several patches of endoderm cells rather than
weakly throughout the endoderm (data not shown). Other
genes induced in endoderm include Pax6 and insulin (data
not shown); however, these genes are also expressed in
mesoderm/ectoderm cultured alone and are therefore not useful
as markers in this recombination assay. These results show that
E7.5 endoderm receives instructions from adjacent germ
Endoderm receives instructive signals from
To ascertain whether the above signals are instructive or
permissive, we swapped anterior and posterior endoderm
relative to mesoderm/ectoderm. For example, if these signals
are permissive, anterior endoderm will not adopt a posterior
fate when cultured next to posterior mesoderm/ectoderm. If,
however, these signals are instructive, anterior endoderm will
become posteriorized, and express posterior genes when
cultured next to posterior mesoderm/ectoderm. We used IFABP
as an early marker of posterior endoderm (Fig. 3 lane 2) and
β-cardiac actin (bCA) as an anterior marker (lane 1).
Curiously, bCA expression is predominantly in anterior
endoderm, but not mesoderm (lanes 3 and 4) at this time.
When anterior and posterior endoderm are switched
relative to mesoderm/ectoderm, anterior endoderm becomes
posteriorized and expresses IFABP (compare lanes 7 and 1),
whereas posterior endoderm becomes more anterior and
expresses bCA (compare lanes 6 and 2). We also observed
that once these markers come on in endoderm, their
expression persists even when the A-P position of endoderm
is switched, suggesting that the endoderm retains some of its
initial identity.
These data indicate that inductive signals from mesoderm/
ectoderm can influence the A-P nature of endoderm.
Somatostatin (SS) expression also indicates that endoderm has
been partially respecified. Unlike in vivo expression of SS,
which is in both anterior and posterior endoderm, in vitro we
rarely observe anterior expression of SS, but rather routinely
see expression in posterior endoderm cultured with posterior
mesoderm/ectoderm (compare lanes 5 and 8). However, when
anterior endoderm is cultured with posterior mesoderm/
ectoderm, the number of explants expressing SS increases (Fig.
3B, compare lane 5 to lane 7). In vivo, NeuroD is expressed in
both anterior and posterior endoderm, but in vitro is only
induced in posterior endoderm cultured with posterior
mesoderm/ectoderm. The observation that SS but not NeuroD
is induced in anterior endoderm suggest that either certain cell
types are subject to respecification, or that other signals are
necessary for complete posteriorization of endoderm. Pdx1 is
induced in both anterior and posterior endoderm (see below),
and is therefore not useful for analysis of A-P specification.
Taken together, the results shown in Fig. 3 suggest that the
A-P nature of endoderm is not irreversibly determined by E7.5,
and can be altered by changing the spatial source of signal.
E7.5 endoderm is not responsive to notochord
The results presented above show that Pdx1 (a marker for
pancreas and duodenum) is induced in gastrulation-stage
endoderm (E7.5) after 1-2 days of coculture with
mesoderm/ectoderm. Studies in chick have shown that
notochord induces expression of Pdx1 in somite-stage
endoderm (stage –11, approx. 10 somites; corresponds to
E8.5+ in mouse) (Kim et al., 1997). It is possible that induction
Fig. 3. Endoderm receives instructive signals from
mesoderm/ectoderm. (A) Schematic illustration of anterior-posterior
repositioning of E7.5 endoderm. Endoderm anterior (Aen) or
posterior (Pen) to the node was isolated and cultured alone, or
cultured with either anterior (Amec) or posterior mesoderm/ectoderm
(Pmec), for 2 days. (B) RT-PCR analysis of anterior/posterior
endoderm recombined with anterior/posterior mesoderm/ectoderm.
The marker for early anterior endoderm is beta cardiac actin (bCA,
lane 1) and posterior endoderm is the intestinal fatty acid binding
protein gene (IFABP, lane 2). These genes are not expressed in either
anterior mesoderm/ectoderm (Amec, lane 3) or posterior
mesoderm/ectoderm (Pmec, lane 4) at this time (early expression). In
contrast to IFABP and bCA, SS and Neuro D gene expression is
induced after 1-2 days of coculture (induced expression).
Experiments shown are representative of those that were repeated
three times in triplicate.
1568 J. M. Wells and D. A. Melton
Fig. 4. Endoderm is not responsive to notochord. (A) Schematic
representation of chick notochord recombined with E7.5 mouse
endoderm. Notochord and endoderm were isolated as described in
Materials and Methods, recombined in collagen so that they were in
physical contact, and cultured for 2 days. (B) RT-PCR analysis of
endoderm plus notochord recombinants after 2 days in culture.
Notochord does not affect expression of the endoderm marker
IFABP, nor does it induce expression of Pdx1 or SS when compared
to mesoderm/ectoderm (en+mec). No signal is seen in samples not
treated with reverse transcriptase (−RT). Experiments shown were
done twice in duplicate.
of Pdx1 in earlier stage endoderm occurs via notochord
precursor cells (notochord plate) present in the E7.5
mesoderm/ectoderm, which obtain competence to induce Pdx1
expression during the coculture period. To determine whether
E7.5 endoderm is responding to notochord-like signals, we
cocultured it with stage-11 chick notochord and assayed for
gene expression. Results in Fig. 4B show that chick notochord
does not alter expression of IFABP in cocultured E7.5
endoderm, nor does it induce expression of Pdx1, SS or
NeuroD. Also, pancreatic mesenchyme, which is able to
regulate gene expression of the early pancreatic endoderm,
does not induce gene expression in E7.5 endoderm (data not
Due to ease of isolation, we used chick rather than mouse
notochord, and it is possible that a negative result is due to
species-specific signaling. We believe this is unlikely since
recombination of chick and mouse tissues is widely used
Fig. 5. Endoderm genes are differentially induced by isolated E7.5
mesoderm and ectoderm. (A) The primitive streak/mesoderm,
mesoderm and ectoderm were separated as described in Materials
and Methods. Isolated tissues were recombined in collagen and
cultured for 2 days before analysis of gene expression by RT-PCR.
(B) RT-PCR analysis of endoderm recombined with isolated
ectoderm (ect), mesoderm and PS (PS+mes), mesoderm alone (mes),
or PS (PS) alone. Experiments shown were done twice in triplicate.
to study inductive mechanisms (Keynes et al., 1997).
Furthermore, mouse and human growth factors can substitute
for chick notochord and induce gene expression in somitestage chick endoderm (Hebrok et al., 1998). Although these
data are preliminary, they suggest that E7.5 endoderm receives
signals from mesoderm/ectoderm that make it competent to
respond to subsequent notochord and mesenchyme signals.
This is consistent with the observation that the A-P nature of
gastrulation-stage endoderm is more plastic (Fig. 3) than
somite-stage endoderm (Kim et al., 1997).
Endoderm genes are differentially induced by
isolated E7.5 mesoderm and ectoderm
Endoderm of the E7.5 embryo is in contact with underlying
primitive streak, axial and lateral mesoderm, and anterior
ectoderm, all putative sources of endoderm patterning signals.
In order to further identify the source of signals that instruct
endoderm, we separated mesoderm/ectoderm into distinct
germ layers and regions with gentle proteolysis and manual
dissection (Fig. 5A). Endoderm was cocultured with isolated
primitive streak (PS) plus mesoderm, mesoderm alone, or
ectoderm. This analysis shows that the primitive streak is able
to induce somatostatin and Pdx1 in endoderm (Fig. 5B). Pdx1
can also be induced, albeit less effectively, by lateral mesoderm
and ectoderm, consistent with the fact that Pdx1 is normally
E7.5 endoderm induction by adjacent germ layers 1569
Fig. 6. Soluble factors pattern E7.5 endoderm. (A) Endoderm alone in culture for 2 days, or placed on a membrane next to mesoderm/ectoderm.
Endoderm alone will form often form a hollow cystic structure that resembles un-induced, squamous-like E7.5 endoderm (upper left panel).
Endoderm placed adjacent to mesoderm/ectoderm condenses into a ball (lower left panel). H&E staining of sections of endoderm alone (upper
right panel) show a hollow cyst-like structure, whereas endoderm cultured trans-membrane from mesoderm/ectoderm begins to form a
thickened epithelium reminiscent of E9 gut epithelium (lower right panel). (B) RT-PCR analysis of endoderm alone (en) or endoderm placed on
a membrane and cultured adjacent to mesoderm/ectoderm (mec). After 2 days in culture, endoderm was isolated separately, and assayed for
marker expression. Expression of Pdx1, SS, NeuroD and insulin in endoderm was used as a measure of induction. In two separate experiments,
five explants in each condition were assayed separately, and one representative example is shown. (−RT), control samples not treated with
reverse transcriptase.
expressed in domains that are adjacent to lateral mesoderm and
anterior ectoderm. This is consistent with data in Fig. 3, and
data not shown, suggesting that ectoderm, mesoderm and
primitive streak produce qualitatively different signals that
confer regional identity to endoderm.
Soluble factors instruct E7.5 endoderm
To determine if endoderm is instructed by soluble factors, or
requires cell contact, a 0.4 µm Biopore membrane was placed
between endoderm and mesoderm/ectoderm during the culture
period. After 2 days, endoderm and mesoderm/ectoderm were
isolated separately and analyzed for gene expression.
Endoderm cultured alone frequently forms a cystic, hollow
structure with endoderm remaining a thin single layer of cells.
In contrast, endoderm cultured adjacent to mesoderm/ectoderm
differentiates, and begins to thicken into an epithelium (Fig.
6A). This morphological differentiation is reminiscent of in
vivo differentiation, where the E7.5 flat, squamous endoderm
(Figs 2A, 6A) differentiates into a thick columnar epithelium
like that found in the E9 gut tube. Morphological
differentiation of endoderm is accompanied by induction of the
markers Pdx1, SS, insulin and NeuroD in endoderm (Fig. 6B).
NeuroD is also occasionally induced in ectoderm by endoderm.
This reciprocal induction is interesting, and not unexpected
since NeuroD is expressed in motor neurons of the E9.5
embryo. Although we generally see endodermal expression of
NeuroD before ectodermal expression, upon longer culture of
explants we occasionally see ectodermal expression of
NeuroD. While these results indicate endoderm is instructed by
soluble factors, we do observe that survival of endoderm is
greatly enhanced by cell contact (data not shown),
demonstrating that the two processes may be coupled. These
results prompted us to test known, soluble growth factors
affects on endoderm differentiation.
FGF4 patterns endoderm
The E7.5 embryo expresses numerous growth factors. Growth
factors expressed by ectoderm include FGF5, FGF8, TGFβ1
and TGFβ2, whereas those expressed by mesoderm and/or
primitive streak include BMP4, FGF4, HGF, EGF, TGFβ1 and
TGFβ2. To determine whether these soluble factors instruct
endoderm, isolated endoderm was cultured for 2 days in
medium containing different growth factors, and subsequently
assayed for expression of Pdx1, SS and NeuroD. All growth
factors were tested over a range of concentrations (see
Materials and Methods). Of all factors tested, only FGF4
effected a concentration-dependent induction of SS and
NeuroD in isolated endoderm (Fig. 7). Notably, SS is induced
at higher concentrations of FGF4 than NeuroD, which is
consistent with the A-P expression pattern of these genes
relative to the source of FGF4. Specifically, SS is expressed in
more posterior endoderm that becomes the duodenum and
small intestine, and this endoderm is immediately adjacent to
the primitive streak/mesoderm, the in vivo source of FGF4
(Niswander and Martin, 1992). NeuroD, however, is expressed
in more anterior endoderm fated to become pancreas and
duodenum and is therefore further away from the source of
FGF4, and would likely respond to lower concentrations of this
factor. It is also interesting that NeuroD is repressed by high
concentrations of FGF4, suggesting that FGF4 could define the
posterior boundary of NeuroD expression. Although NeuroD
and Pdx1 have similar expression patterns in vivo, Pdx1 is not
reproducibly induced by FGF4, indicating that Pdx1
expression requires additional signals. The fact that neither
FGF2 nor activin reproducibly induced gene expression in E7.5
endoderm, but do induce Pdx1 expression in somite-stage
chick endoderm (Kim et al., 1997), further highlights the
differences in developmental competence between stages of
1570 J. M. Wells and D. A. Melton
Fig. 7. FGF4 induces markers in isolated endoderm. E7.5 endoderm
was isolated and cultured in medium containing increasing
concentrations of peptide growth factors (see Materials and
Methods). FGF4 (but not aFGF, FGF2,5,8b, TGFβ1,2, TGFα,
Activin, HGF, EGF, IGFI or IGFII) induces expression of
somatostatin (SS) and NeuroD in isolated endoderm. A
representative example of the RT-PCR is seen on the left, and the
number of recombinants is on the right. NeuroD and SS show a doseresponsiveness to FGF4.
Endoderm appears early in gastrulation (E6-6.5), and by 7.5
days of development it forms a sheet of cells on the outside of
the embryo. Regional expression of genes suggests that
endoderm cells have an A-P identity by the end of gastrulation.
The data presented here show that over the next day of
development, endoderm receives instructions from adjacent
germ layers, which induce new gene expression. Our data
further suggests that these signals make endoderm competent
to respond to subsequent inductive signals. For example,
somite-stage endoderm responds to permissive signals from
adjacent notochord (Kim et al., 1997). However, these signals
are only capable of acting on endoderm that has received prior
instruction from mesoderm/ectoderm. Similarly, somite-stage
hepatic endoderm expresses liver albumin in response to
signals from adjacent cardiac mesoderm (Gualdi et al., 1996).
However, the pre-hepatic endoderm in these experiments was
already specified or set aside prior to the induction by cardiac
mesoderm. Also, the hindgut endoderm of the early somitestage chick embryo has posterior identity, but through
interaction with the adjacent mesoderm further differentiates
into a posterior type (cloaca) of epithelium (Roberts et al.,
1998). In each of these examples, the endoderm has received
instruction prior to signaling from notochord, cardiac
mesoderm or hindgut mesoderm, respectively. This process of
sequential induction allows for broad regions of endoderm to
become progressively determined towards the establishment of
organ domains.
How is the endoderm determined before gut tube formation?
Evidence pointing to a series of reciprocal inductions between
germ layers that result in A-P specification is now emerging.
For example, before gastrulation, Hesx1 is expressed in
anterior visceral endoderm (Thomas and Beddington, 1996).
These anterior cells are involved in specifying anterior
ectoderm, which is mediated in part by the TGFβ growth factor
nodal (Varlet et al., 1997). Once this anterior pattern is
established, it is reinforced in other anterior and ventral
structures. For example, as gastrulation proceeds, cardiac
mesoderm migrates from the posterior to reside next to the
anterior endoderm, which is involved in differentiation cardiac
myoblasts (Narita et al., 1997). Cardiac myoblasts then
condense and begin to differentiate, and in the process signal
back to the adjacent endoderm, resulting in activation of liver
genes (Gualdi et al., 1996). Although it is not known how other
regions of endoderm become specified, endoderm interacts
with many different structures including the notochord plate,
presumptive head ectoderm, the node, lateral mesoderm and
the primitive streak. Our data support the idea that endoderm
is involved in reciprocal induction all along the A-P axis.
The factors that mediate signals between germ layers are of
general interest and our data show that FGF4, which is
expressed in the posterior of the embryo (primitive streak)
(Niswander and Martin, 1992), induces NeuroD and
somatostatin (SS) expression in endoderm. Furthermore, FGF4
induces expression of these genes in a concentration-dependent
manner, implicating it as a posterior morphogen. SS is
expressed in more posterior endoderm next to the primitive
streak, the main source of FGF4, and it is not therefore
surprising that SS responds to higher concentrations of FGF4.
NeuroD is expressed in more anterior endoderm, further away
from the source of FGF4, and responds to lower FGF4
concentrations. In fact, it is possible that FGF4 may restrict
posterior expression of NeuroD, since NeuroD expression is
repressed by high concentrations FGF4. The A-P specification
of endoderm and neural ectoderm is strikingly similar in that
FGFs also act to posteriorize neural ectoderm (Cox and
Hemmati-Brivanlou, 1995). The ability of FGF4 to posteriorize
endoderm was tested by incubation of anterior endoderm with
FGF4, and although FGF4 affects posterior gene expression,
our results were inconclusive because these small pieces of
isolated endoderm did not survive well in culture (data not
It is remarkable that a few FGFs are able to mediate a wide
variety of cellular responses throughout development. For
example, of the FGFs tested (aFGF, FGF2,4,5,8), only FGF4
is able induce expression of SS and NeuroD. The potency of
FGF4 over other FGFs could be explained by expression of
different FGF receptors, or receptor isoforms. FGFR1, which
is expressed by endoderm at this time (data not shown), has
several different splice variants that are differentially
responsive to FGFs. In a cellular reporter assay, FGFR1
isoform b is threefold more responsive to FGF4 than FGF2,
and tenfold more responsive to FGF4 than either FGF5 or
FGF8 (Ornitz et al., 1996). It is also noteworthy that FGF2
secreted by the notochord can induce somite-stage dorsal
endoderm to express Pdx1 (Hebrok et al., 1998), whereas FGFs
are not able to induce Pdx1 in late gastrulation-stage endoderm.
This could mean that induction of Pdx1 in gastrulation-stage
endoderm requires additional signals, whereas older somitestage endoderm has already been exposed to these signals, and
is now responsive to FGFs. We are testing combinations of
E7.5 endoderm induction by adjacent germ layers 1571
growth factors for their ability to induce Pdx1 in E7.5
endoderm in vitro. FGFs are not limited to pancreatic
induction, since FGFs secreted by cardiac mesoderm induce
ventral foregut endoderm to express liver genes such as
albumin (Jung et al., 1999). This finding is interesting since
Pdx1 is also expressed by ventral foregut endoderm,
implicating FGFs in the regulation of ventral Pdx1 expression.
Since Pdx1 is expressed in several unique temporal and spatial
patterns, its regulation is likely to be complex.
A role for FGF4 in endoderm patterning in vivo is
undetermined since embryos that lack the fgf4 gene arrest prior
to gastrulation and fail to make detectable mesoderm or
endoderm (Feldman et al., 1995). In addition, embryos
deficient for fgfr1 arrest during gastrulation (Deng et al., 1994;
Yamaguchi et al., 1994). Unlike the fgf4−/− mice, fgfr1−/−
embryos do make some lateral and axial mesoderm; however,
these experiments did not address a role for FGFR1 in
endoderm formation and patterning. Another study used a
chimeric analysis with fgfr1−/− ES cells and demonstrated that
these cells accumulate in the primitive streak, forming ectopic
neural structures (Ciruna et al., 1997). These cells are greatly
impaired in their ability to contribute to mesoderm.
Furthermore, fgfr1−/− cells are almost completely absent in
endodermal derivatives. These results could point to a role for
FGFR1 in cell migration out of the primitive streak.
Alternatively, FGF signaling may play a vital role in endoderm
development, which would also result in a lack of fgfr1−/− cells
contributing to endoderm. A genetic approach that targets the
ability of endoderm to respond to FGF4 could elucidate a role
for FGF signaling in endoderm patterning.
In vitro culture of germ layers has proven an effective way
to study many cellular processes that are occurring in the late
gastrulation-stage embryo. For example, in addition to results
reported here, we observe that several of the growth factors
tested promoted the survival and growth of early endoderm in
culture (as assessed morphologically and by gene expression;
data not shown), but did not induce endodermal differentiation.
Also, it was seen that direct cell contact between germ layers
promoted the best differentiation of endoderm. Using the
explant recombination assay, we also verified previous
observations where anterior endoderm is involved in both
neural and cardiac induction (Ang and Rossant, 1993; Miralles
et al., 1998; Schultheiss et al., 1995). In vitro recombination of
germ layers may allow us to further clarify the reciprocal
inductions that pattern the early endoderm.
In conclusion, our studies have identified inductive events
involved in cell-fate specification of mouse endoderm. This
addresses a part of the mechanism of endodermal
organogenesis, but there is clearly much more to be learned.
Of special interest to us is the specification of stem or precursor
cells for various organs, and more investigations on the
extracellular signals and cellular responses that underlie early
endoderm differentiation may facilitate their identification and
The authors thank Drs Christopher Wright and Maureen Gannon
for the Pdx1+/lacZ mice, and all members of the Melton laboratory for
critical discussion and technical support. Special thanks go to Drs
Anne Grapin-Botton, Cheng-Jung Lai, Matthias Hebrok, Susanne
Schmid and Miguel Ramalho-Santos for critical discussion of this
manuscript. This work was supported by grants from the National
Institutes of Health, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. J.M.W.
was supported by postdoctoral fellowships from the American Cancer
Society and the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation.
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